Research and Restructuring

Working out the details for a new story can be a time-consuming pain in the butt. That’s what makes the Internet so great: there’s a wealth of information out there to help you decide where your story should take place, what kind of weapon your antagonist should carry, or what is the perfect name for your main character’s best friend. During National Novel Writing Month time that information is compressed into a neat little bundle in the form of the “Reference Desk” forum on the NaNoWriMo website. On the Reference Desk, NaNo participants from all over the world help each other answer the tough questions, and give assistance and opinions based on their own personal experiences.

I haven’t made great use of the Reference Desk in the past because most of my NaNo novels took place in made-up worlds where I could write whatever I damn-well pleased to make my story make sense. This year, however, my novel idea takes place in the real world, and requires my main character to travel the world a bit. So off to the Reference Desk I went, to ask for help. What I was looking for was assistance in choosing a main location for my story. I wanted a place that was a little off the map, somewhere were things like cell phones and massive amounts of entertainment are more scarce, but also somewhere where the residents celebrate Halloween, or a similar creepy-stuff-abounds kind of holiday.

What I quickly determined from the replies I received was that there aren’t many places these days where my requirements make a lot of sense. A few people pointed out, for example, that even in less civilized areas, cell phones are abound, and that some of the least likely places actually have higher cellphone-per-capita numbers because they never caught up on land-line installations and instead skipped right to cell. As I continued to read through the replies from people more knowledgeable than me, scene ideas and plot holes ran through my mind, and I began to realize that there probably is no good location that will suit all my needs for this particular story. I had a moment of frustrated indignation just thinking about it.

And then I realized something. I realized that I’m a writer, dammit, and writers improvise. The world might not always conform to meet our needs, but we have the power to change the world.

All of a sudden I had a plethora of additional ideas fluttering through my mind. My story wouldn’t take place in the present, no…but in the near future, yes. And there would be a disaster of some kind – nothing that would completely destroy the planet, but would lessen the planet’s population and destroy many forms of present-time technology. It all began to come together. I could see how this would work, how it would enhance the story, and even how it would flesh out the background of the main character. The fellow writers who responded to my post couldn’t give me exactly what I’d been looking for, but they helped me realize that I can give myself exactly what I’m looking for, if I’m just willing to be a little more creative.

The take-away from this post is two-fold:

1. The writer community is huge and helpful. The Reference Desk at the NaNoWriMo website is not always active in the non-NaNo season, but you can always find fellow writers in places like the #MyWANA Twitter feed, critique sites like Critique Circle, and the multitude of writer blogs (like this one!). Point being, there is always assistance out there if you need it.

2. Writers are adaptable, and improvisation is often the mother of some of the best ideas. If the details of your story aren’t working out, reconsider them. What would need to happen in order to make the details work out? What do you have to do in order to make that thing happen? Now do it!

Writing has a lot of facets other than the literal sitting down and writing. Tons of research is (unfortunately) one of them, and adapting your story ideas as a result of that research is (unfortunately) another one. But neither has to be as horrible as they sound. Join the writer communities popping up everywhere, and the whole system will feel that much simpler.

Not to mention, significantly less lonely.

Are you a part of any writer communities? Why or why not? Have you ever recruited the help of others in working some of the details of your story? Did it help? Have you ever completely changed a story based on researched information? Please share!

Focus in a Sea of Distractions

We’re on the homestretch, and Week 10 of The Artist’s Way is about “recovering a sense of self-protection”. I’m not sure that “self-protection” was the right choice of words…I’d have said something more along the lines of “recovering a sense of focus on what’s important”.

Basically, week 10 talks about a number of issues that we deal with (and sometimes enforce upon ourselves) that cause us to lose our focus and drift away from our dreams. One such issue is not given an actual title in the chapter, but I would refer to it as the “I’ll Do It When…” syndrome. This is when we set arbitrary limits for ourselves that don’t really mean anything in the long run, but make us feel as though we’re protecting ourselves from pain. For instance, I might finish editing my manuscript this month and have it all set for self-publication and then suddenly turn around and say, “No, you know what, I’m not well-known enough to sell a book. I’ll wait until I have, hmmm…say, 200 followers on my blog before I publish.” The limit is completely arbitrary (what’s so special about the number 200?) and means positively nothing (number of blog followers, in the end, has nothing to do with whether the book will sell), so the only point of it is to hold myself back, and why would I want to do that? As we’ve mentioned before, the name of the game is fear. We impose limits on ourselves because we’re terrified of the unknown. In this example I might be terrified that if I self-publish I won’t sell any books, or worse, I’ll sell a few and then get a wave of horrible reviews. So I (hypothetically) give myself these little limits that I have to reach before I’ll be willing to make the leap, and then when that moment comes I find another reason to limit myself. The cycle continues.

procastinatorThe other issues addressed in week 10 are workaholism, drought, fame, and competition. Workaholism is exactly what it sounds like; the artist in question lets their entire word become awash in their day job, to the point that they can never “find time” to work on their art. This isn’t simply the normal situation where an artist has a day job and thus has less time to work on their craft; this is actively seeking out more work to do because the artist is scared to work on their craft (for any of the reasons previously discussed). And this doesn’t necessarily have to involve a day job with an employer; a house wife who longs to be a painter may insist that she has no time to paint because she has to vacuum the floors for the second time today, and remake all the beds, and cut up and wash all the fruit and veggies in the fridge, and…well, you get the idea.

Drought is pretty much exactly what it sounds like…writers might call it “writer’s block”. This is when you have no ideas, everything you create seems like crap, and you have no idea how to move forward. You begin to doubt yourself. Drought is a state that every single artist deals with at some point, but depending on what kind of artist you are and what kind of person you are, you could push through it and come out stronger on the other side, or you could give up entirely. Drought has been well known to be the end of many artist careers.

Fame is synonymous with ego in this case. Even if I’ve been successful so far (say, by self-publishing and selling my first hundred books), I get caught up in the fact that I’m not famous yet. There are certain things that we equate with being successful, and unfortunately “fame” is one of them. By becoming the artist we had hoped to become, we also expect to start being adored by the public, receive fan letters, get asked to do book readings or get invited to a convention. If these things don’t happen, we assume that we’ve done something wrong. It’s not enough to meet our dreams and maybe even make some money at them…suddenly we want to be a celebrity too, and now we’re focusing on that instead of our art. Our art gets shuffled to the background.

Competition is based in good old fashioned jealousy. It boils down to seeing others succeed and feeling as though they somehow beat you. For example, say I have a close friend who is also a writer. We began writing around the same time and we often write in similar genres and the like. Now say that I’m stuck in the editing process, while she has already pushed forward, self-published, and has recently landed on the bestselling e-book list on Amazon. My sense of competition kicks in and I begin to feel like I’ve “lost”. The possibility of succeeding becomes moot because I’ve already “failed”. I lose the will to keep moving forward.

This is a chapter that I actually found quite interesting because I have, in one form or another, experienced each of these issues. I’ve played the “workaholic” by finding a million other things that “had” to get done that weren’t my writing. I’ve created arbitrary limits for myself, like telling myself that my zombie novel has to be the first thing I publish, even if it’s not necessarily my best work. I’ve put myself down because others are out there achieving what I’ve always dreamed of…they “beat” me to it. I told myself that I can’t be successful because I’m not “famous” enough (via, not enough followers, never getting comments, etc). And I’ve definitely gone through the drought process…many times, in fact, and every time I consider that this might be the time I quit all together.

These are all things that I expect every artist deals with, because they all boil down to human emotion and instinct. We want to be the best, we want to be loved, we feel that if we’re doing things right they should be easy, and we hate being afraid. The key, as with many things, is to recognize the issues and move on from them, and it helps knowing that others are going through the exact same things. That’s why communities (like the #MyWANA Twitter community for writers) are so great. No one has to suffer alone.

Have you ever dealt with workaholism, drought, “fame”, competition, or a raging case of the “I’ll Do It When…” syndrome? How did you get past it? Please share!

Author Platforms 101

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

92. Building a platform

For this topic, along with a few other topics I’ve spoken on in the past, I would like to direct you over to Kristen Lamb’s blog. Kristen is the goddess of all things social media and author platform. Anything I know already (which isn’t much), I’ve learned from her. If it weren’t for the good fortune of stumbling across her blog once and deciding to follow it, I wouldn’t know a damn thing about having an author platform. In fact, I’m not sure I would even know what the words “author platform” mean.

Put simply, Writer’s Digest defines an author platform as “your visibility as an author”. It is through this “visibility” that you connect with current and potential readers and (hopefully) sell books. You do so by making yourself available through such things as a professional website, blogs, mailing lists, social media, and any professional connections you have.

Currently my “author platform” is somewhat compact. I have this blog, which is my epicenter, as well as a Twitter account, and accounts at FictionPress.com and Fanfiction.net. I have no connections, to speak of, because I haven’t been in the game very long, and I’m held back by my career in the trades. I don’t currently share my Facebook page with readers because I haven’t yet figured out how to do so without readers being able to see every part of me, so to speak. I want to have some semblance of privacy, after all, some stuff that only family and friends can see.

Someday I hope for my author platform to grow because there is no doubt (now that I know what one is) that it is an important aspect of becoming a successful writer. So for now I keep my eye on Kristen and anyone else who enjoys sharing their knowledge and insights. Thanks all!

Social Butterfly? No…I’m a Social Scorpion

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

66. Using social media effectively.

I definitely do not claim to be a social media expert. I don’t even claim to be a decent social media apprentice. I have a Facebook account, yes, but I only really use it to post pictures of my daughter and to make the (very) occasional status update. I also have a Twitter account, but my tweets tend to come days – if not weeks – apart. The closest thing to social media that I pay fairly close attention to is this blog, and even that can take a backseat for a week or two if I run up against something more important (shut up, playing Ninja Turtles with my daughter is serious business).

The situation I’m describing is one that plagues many “professional” people who find a need to maintain a social media platform, and it’s less about using social media effectively and more about time management. I have no time management skills. I tend to deal with things as they pop up and slap me in the face (I empty the dishwasher when the sink is overflowing with another load’s worth of dishes), and I fit the other important things in whenever I get the chance (like how I’m plucking out this post on my iPhone during the bus ride back from work). This “system” of mine, aside from being an unnecessarily stressful way of doing things, absolutely does not work when it comes to using social media effectively. You have to set aside slots of time to deal with social media if you’re going to use it in a professional sense (in my case, that would be an author platform). You’ve got to put in the effort to think about how you’re presenting yourself to the world because it can absolutely change how you are viewed by people. For example, prospective publishers/agents/editors/readers are t likely to take you seriously if they stumble upon your social media accounts and discover that every tweet is written in text speak, or that every Facebook status update is about the last meal you ate, or if you can’t make yourself known on the Internet without using vast, cascading walls of profanity.

The point is that you can’t just have a Facebook account and expect that it will somehow magically make you a more popular writer (or whatever else you’re attempting to bolster). Using social media in that sense requires (not necessarily a load of time, but) some thought and effort. This isn’t something I’ve put nearly enough effort into this far (see time management rant above), but there are lots of people out there who do have a grasp on the subject and I, and others like me, could definitely learn from them. One such person, whose blog I absolutely love, is Kristen Lamb. Kristen fills her blog with a veritable waterfall of important information for writers and she regularly touches on the social media aspect of being a writer. She has even written a book called We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, specifically for schmucks like me who need someone to hold them down and yell, “Here! This is how you do it!”

And just as soon as I get that time management issue sorted out I’m sure I’ll get around to reading it myself…